Kurzweil 1000HX & 1000SX
For those without the time or the inclination to sample come two expanders dedicated to sampled horns and strings. Simon Trask finds out if Kurzweil's dedication has paid dividends.
If the art of sampling doesn't appeal to you - or you're just looking for a shortcut to sampling excellence - Kurzweil's 1000 series modules could be for you.
KURZWEIL HAVE TRADITIONALLY had a reputation for being to sampled instruments what Oberheim are to synthesisers. We're talking Rolls Royce category here, with prices to match - the company's most famous instrument, the K250, weighs in at around a cool £10,000.
At the budget end of the market (for Kurzweil) the company produce the 1000 Series sample modules: the K1000 keyboard and 1000PX, 1000GX, 1000HX and 1000SX modules. While the first two provide a variety of instrumental sounds, the latter three are each dedicated to a specific "family" of instruments - guitars, horns and strings respectively. Essentially it is only the source samples which make each instrument different.
The 1000's sounds can respond to attack and release velocity, and to channel and polyphonic aftertouch. For added responsiveness you can select from a range of preset velocity maps or create your own. Kurzweil also allow you to define receive and transmit program maps, so that, for instance, a received patch number 22 could call up Program 147 which would transmit patch number 63. It's a neat way of being able to align patches musically without having to align them in memory (particularly as the 1000s have more patches than MIDI has patch numbers).
The GX, HX and SX are each 20-note polyphonic, while the PX and the K1000 are each 24-note polyphonic. What's more, if you find that this many voices isn't enough, you can use a function called MIDI Chain Link. This allows you to chain up to twelve 1000s together for, in the case of the PX, a maximum 288-note polyphony. Chain Link seems to work in much the same way as Group mode on Oberheim's Matrix 1000 (see review elsewhere in this issue), in that notes are rotated through the twelve (or however many) units.
Front-panel operation is simple and quick, adopting the increasingly popular "generic" approach, whereby you use a minimum of dedicated buttons and step through an open-ended number of display pages. In this way manufacturers aren't limited by the physical "front end" should they wish to bring out software updates.
THE SONIC BASIS of the 1000 is its Soundfiles - multisamples. There are 26 of these on the SX and 59 on the HX. Primarily they are of acoustic instruments, but Kurzweil have also included a sine wave and a few synthetic sounds.
Up to four Soundfiles can be combined in four Layers to create a Program, of which there are 163 in the HX and 184 in the SX. In each case 64 (numbers 64-127) are RAM and therefore user-programmable, while the rest are ROM presets (which you an of course copy into RAM if you want to tinker with them).
In addition to a Soundfile, each Layer in a Program an be given its own values for volume, balance sensitivity (positive/negative), MIDI key range, transposition, detune, delay, dynamic range and (my favourite) keyboard tilt. The latter parameter has nothing to do with how much alcohol either you or your keyboard might have consumed, but rather allows you to assign a progressive change in volume across the keyboard range. Delays an be anything from one millisecond to ten seconds, so it's easy to set up all manner of delay effects using either the same sound or up to four different sounds. Additionally you an define whether or not MIDI data such as sustain and sostenuto pedals, pitch-bend, volume and velocity will affect each Layer.
The 1000 also allows you to program a digital Effect for each Layer. The 1000 utilises two Effects levels, Compiled and Modular, which are mutually exclusive per Layer. The former allows you to select from 12 preset effect types such as vibrato, tremolo, Leslie, chorus, phaser and echo (but not reverb), all of which have parameters editable per RAM Program.
At this level, everything's fairly straightforward, but when you choose Modular effects you open up a whole new area of complexity. Rather like Oberheim with their Matrix series of synths, Kurzweil have tried to reproduce the flexibility of the old modular analogue synths by allowing you to connect up, in all manner of ways, a wide range of Modules such as local and global LFOs (with 22 waveforms to choose from, incidentally), local and global ASR Envelopes, Mixers, Inverters, Negators, uni- and bipolar variable-stage Envelopes, Envelope Control, Pitch Control and Amplitude Control. Some of these Modules an be given one control source, others two, and there are limits to how many of a particular Module you an assign to a Layer (typically a maximum of two).
As well as being able to set up all manner of modulation chains with these Modules, you can dynamically modulate the modulators using incoming MIDI commands such as controllers, attack and release velocities, channel and polyphonic aftertouch, and key number. For instance, you could use a global LFO to create a vibrato effect, then program the LFO's rate to be controlled by aftertouch via MIDI. MIDI commands can also be used to control volume balance per Layer, so that, for instance, with velocity controlling the balance of two Layers (one positive, one negative) you can create velocity crossfades.
The Compiled effects are in fact preset Module configurations created by Kurzweil's engineers. For instance, the Leslie effect has been created by having one global LFO modulate pitch and amplitude controllers for Layer one, and another global LFO modulate pitch and amplitude controllers for Layer two, with both LFOs being modulated by channel aftertouch for good measure (though you could just as readily choose another MIDI source such as the mod wheel).
Of course, all this modular power can be used to produce some weird sounds (and on the HX and SX it is), but applied with more subtlety it an be useful for generating a natural and dynamic "breathing" quality in the samples.
SOURCE SAMPLES IN the SX include bowed strings, violin, cello, pizzicato strings, mellow strings, bright strings, very bright strings, mellow cello (really) and synth strings. Viola and double bass are notable through their absence, however.
Because the 1000's sounds are multisampled, some Soundfiles include split textures, such as solo cello and solo violin (obviously the splitpoint is fixed). Many of the basic sounds have mellow/bright variations, and though the difference is more than that of opening or closing a filter, they do help compensate for a surprising omission on the 1000s: filtering.
The SX provides a healthy variety of ensemble-string and solo-string Programs. Among the single-Layer Programs, 'Bowed Strings' (01) is a full-sounding string ensemble, while 'Solo Violin' (02) has a lyrical, warm tone and catches the bow scrape well, 'Solo Cello' (03) has a rich, woody, stately quality, 'Pizzicato Strings' (04) has a dynamic, bouncy quality and captures the unevenness of a string section pizziato effectively, and the slow attack of 'Slow Strings' (05) removes the percussive wood scrape of 'Bowed Strings' to produce a more stately sound. The SX is quite capable of providing large orchestral string sounds without having to resort to layering.
Programs employing more than one Layer include 'Strings S10ctave' (12), which combines bowed strings and bright strings at various octave transpositions to create an expansive string-orchestra sound, and 'Hard Attack Strings', which layers staccato solo violin with bowed strings - staccato playing producing the solo violin only, and legato playing bringing in sustained strings.
To my mind the synthesised sounds in the upper Programs (such as synth strings, synth pizzicato, synth bass, electric piano and harpsichord) are not this expander's strong point, coming across as make-do substitutes in the absence of any better alternatives. Still, you have to take your hat off to Program 162, 'Killer Bees' (on second thoughts, perhaps not), which uses vibrato and delay vibrato Compiled effects on layered mellow strings, bright strings, very bright strings and bowed strings to very good effect. Besides, listening to a swarm of killer bees humming a B13#11 chord is quite something.
"The MIDI Chain Link facility allows you to chain up to twelve 1000 modules together for, in the case of the PX, a maximum 288-note polyphony.
As with the SX, the horn expander provides a good selection of multisampled instruments, though like the SX there are some surprising omissions. Why is the saxophone only represented by the tenor variety (I like my plaintive sopranos and gruff baritones)? Still, you do get a number of excellent trumpet, muted trumpet, trombone and tenor sax samples, and as with the SX you get all shades ranging from mellow to very bright (the tenor sax even manages a growl or two). And just for variety, the bizzarely-named 'Alien Growl' sounds like someone squawking through a sax mouthpiece.
Of the Programs, 'Soft Tenor Sax' (04) has to be a highlight of the HX. Maybe it's not exactly Ben Webster, but it definitely captures something of his seductive, breathy tone. Very expressive. 'Dual Tenor Sax' (07) employs velocity-switching between medium and growl tenor saxes, so you an be mellow or aggressive as the inspiration takes you. 'Solo Trumpet' (01) and 'Solo Trombone' (03) are both extremely good samples of the real thing, while 'Trumpet Mute' (02) somehow doesn't sound quite fragile enough.
The HX also has plenty of ensemble Programs produced by layering various versions of the same instrument or several different instruments. For instance, 'Sax Trio 2' (36) layers "soft", "mellow medium" and "mellow soft" tenor saxes, while 'Brass Section 2' (41) layers "mellow muted" trumpet, "mellow" trombone and "mellow" trumpet.
The HX contains more synthesised sounds than its strings counterpart, including several electric pianos, synth bass and synth marimba. To my mind these aren't the expander's strongest points by any means, and it's a shame they're presets. 'Harpsichord 1' (151) purports to make a harpsichord sound out of a mellow synthesised trumpet. It doesn't succeed too well. However, 'Harpsichord 3' (153) fares better with layered "muted" trumpet, "medium tenor" sax, "mellow muted" trumpet and "mellow" trumpet. It's true, I tell you. Finally, 'Program Z' (that's its name) finds Kurzweil distorting the hell out of 'Alien Mutant' (a pretty distorted sound already) in an attempt to show off the extremes of the HX's modulation possibilities. The result sounds like the TARDIS on a bad day.
BEYOND THEIR SOUNDS, what really makes the 1000 Series instruments so attractive is their implementation of Multi mode. This allows you to assign a single Program (which, remember, can consist of up to four multisampled sounds organised in any fashion across the keyboard) to each of the 16 available MIDI channels. In this context, each selected Program has independent MIDI response. Obviously, with the range of horn and string sounds contained in the HX and SX respectively, you can build up horn ensembles and string ensembles quite easily - while the more varied combination of sounds in the K1000 and 1000PX provide much more varied ensemble possibilities. Ultimately, of course, there's still a limit to the polyphony available (unless you've got lots of money to pass Kurzweil's way, that is), even if these expanders do offer more voices than virtually every other sampler or synth available.
Surprisingly, there's no way of storing more than one multi-channel configuration. Another surprise - even more so when you consider these expanders will primarily be used by professional studios and musicians - is that, despite being able to play up to 16 different sounds at once, the 1000s only sport stereo outputs.
Fans of weird and wonderful tunings should be kept happy by the 1000's 17 Intonation Tables, which in addition to equal temperament provide such delights as just intonation with flattened 7th, 1/5th comma, Indian Raga, Bali Java, Pythagorean with augmented 4th, and Carlos Alpha (I kid you not). If you can't find a tuning that's to your liking, you can always create your own (as cent variations within individual semitones of the octave).
For people who want to have some idea of what's being pumped into their 1000, Kurzweil have included a MIDI analysis routine which allows you to monitor incoming MIDI data in an interpreted form. This tells you what data is being received, on what channel (s) it's being received, and how long (in milliseconds) since the last byte of data was received.
MIDI is also the only means (using SysEx) of storing off your carefully-crafted Programs once you've used up those 64 RAM memories. As well as Programs, you an store velocity maps, MIDI Program maps and intonation tables.
SysEx addressing of multiple 1000s is no problem, as you an assign each expander its own device number. Kurzweil have developed a program called ObjectMover which facilitates storage of 1000 Programs and related features.
It's available for the Mac, while an ST version is forthcoming.
KURZWEIL CLEARLY DESERVE their reputation as purveyors of quality instruments. Many of the sounds produced by these two expanders are among the best imitations of natural instruments that technology has to offer. In contrast, the synthetic sounds are not such a strong point, and seem to have arisen from an attempt to broaden the range of sounds provided by these dedicated "family" instruments.
Overall the sampled sounds are blessed with a real warmth and breadth which is hard to find elsewhere, while the modular versatility and multitimbral power of these instruments means they should purr along where other instruments might splutter.
To my mind, Korg's new M1 (reviewed last month) provides sampled sounds of equal excellence, though I'd say they have a clean, pure, "tight" quality which is in contrast to those of the HX and SX. The M1 also happens to be an extremely competent all-round instrument, with a much broader range of sounds, much better synthesised sounds, 44 dean-edged PCM drum samples, onboard sequencing and digital effects, four outputs - and, of course, a keyboard. It also has the ability to access new sets of source samples via plug-in PCM data cards, though it seems that Kurzweil are about to open out their 1000 Series instruments with new sets of samples which have to be fitted inside the instruments.
However, when all's said and done, the HX and SX are definitely worth checking out if you're looking for high-quality instruments which will fulfil a specific task with great musical and organisational competence. Definitely the professional's choice.
Thanks to Anthony G Morris of AGM Communications, Ely for providing the review models.
Prices 1000HX and 1000SX £1695 each, including VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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